A recent bestselling biography, “Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit” notes a change from Robert F. Kennedy’s image as the nation’s top “Irish Cop” to a politician concerned with the nation’s downtrodden. But author Chris Matthews has difficulty pinpointing when this change actually started to occur, whether it was after the assassination of his brother President John F. Kennedy or events like the Watts riots. In reality, Robert Kennedy had started to show a concern for the disadvantaged earlier. The reason no one noticed was that most of Kennedy’s relevant efforts were focused on the nation’s capital and in the Shaw neighborhood in particular.
The RFK-in-Shaw story begins with a fact-finding tour in March 1963 that Attorney General Kennedy took of Dunbar High School and Shaw Junior High, schools that were regarded as being in bad shape. At Dunbar, his attention was directed to a recreational pool in the basement that had been closed for nine years due to rebuffed requests for appropriations to repair it. On the way to Shaw Junior High, Kennedy noted the lack of recreational facilities in the neighborhood, which had at least 10,000 children, and started to look for at least a short-term solution to this problem in Shaw. At a news conference that day, the attorney general declared that “we will have a major explosion here” if living conditions for the District’s youth didn’t improve.
The problem of the pool at Dunbar was relatively easy to solve. The attorney general appealed to religious groups, including the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington and the Catholic Interracial Council of the Archdiocese of Washington, to get the funds to repair the pool. By September 1963, the new pool was ready, inaugurated by Kennedy, who brought along TV star Chuck Connors for the opening festivities.
Producing a playground for a neighborhood with 10,000 kids without recreational facilities was a more complicated task. The site chosen was at Seventh and O Streets, a lot used by the police to store abandoned cars, although plans were to eventually use it as the location for a replacement for the dilapidated Shaw Junior High. White House aide E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr. took on the task of convincing the District’s school board to allow at least a temporary playground on the site. Transit mogul O. Roy Chalk announced the formation of a charity, the National Committee on Playgrounds for Young America, to raise funds for the construction of the playground. The attorney general drew attention to the effort by bringing movie star Cary Grant, in town for a benefit, to see the lot and the plans to replace it with a playground. “Hope the playground gets finished before I come back in a wheelchair,” the actor quipped.
In December 1963, shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy, there was a ground breaking for the playground. The group doing the honors included RFK, Prettyman, Chalk and Washington Redskin Bobby Mitchell, along with Kennedy’s Newfoundland dog, Brumus. Over the next six months, work on the playground gradually made progress. The plans were prepared by architect John Carl Warnecke, who also designed President Kennedy’s tomb at Arlington National Cemetery. Donations from U.S. government agencies and others led to the park getting two fighter planes, a truck, a tank and an amphibious vehicle from the Army, a tug boat from the Coast Guard, an antique steam locomotive and a set of trolley cars. When the issue of what to name the playground came up, Chalk said that Kennedy told him to “ask the children.” A canvass of the student leaders in the area decided that it should be named after the late President Kennedy to reflect “the spirit of youth.”
On June 3, 1964, the John F. Kennedy Playground opened, with thousands of Shaw residents attending the celebration. The attorney general and his wife Ethel brought six of their eight children to the dedication. While the initial estimate of the cost of the playground was around $100,000, the total expenditure for the completed wonderland was approximately $500,000. After the opening, the manager of the playground estimated that there were days when crowds of 4,000 youngsters appeared during the week, with up to 8,000 users on the weekend.
RFK made another visit to the Shaw neighborhood that summer in August to dedicate a new community center at 1600 Eighth Street NW. The center was to be the headquarters of Better Homes, Inc., a nonprofit led by James P. Gibbons and Bruce Terris, the latter a Justice Department attorney, dedicated to the repair and remodeling of rundown homes. When Kennedy arrived at the dedication, “hands reached out to touch him, voices murmured, ‘God bless you,’ children swarmed to his side, housewives begged autographs, ”a reporter observed. Kennedy told the 200 residents attending the event that “You have made a contribution to the Nation’s Capital and the whole country,” with the project.
The work that Kennedy did over the previous year and a half did not go unnoticed by the community. Before he left town for New York to run for the U.S. Senate seat, the Inter-High Student Council announced a celebration in his honor at the beginning of September. On his last day as attorney general, 3,500 youngsters cheered and presented a program of entertainment at the outdoor Cardozo High School Stadium to send him off. In his remarks, RFK offered the crowd one of his favorite quotes, from George Bernard Shaw, that “Some people see things as they are and say: Why? I dream of things that never were and say Why Not?”
After Robert Kennedy became a nationally-known member of the Senate, he made one last trip to Shaw. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington, DC finally did explode. On Palm Sunday 1968, Kennedy and his wife Ethel made a surprise appearance at New Bethel Baptist Church, led by its pastor, civil rights activist and MLK confidant Reverend Walter E. Fauntroy. The service, which also had black activist Stokely Carmichael in attendance, was devoted to the memory of Dr. King. At the end of the service, the senator asked if there was any riot damage nearby, to which the reverend answered “let me show you.” They walked from the church to Seventh Street, going on a damage survey that eventually totaled 22 blocks. At one point during the tour, a woman asked Kennedy “Is that you?” When he nodded his head yes, she added “I knew you’d be the first to come here, darling.”